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St. Pete sculptor, painter reframes popular images of blackness

Sharon Norwood is shown in her studio in Dunedin. The graphic artist turned fine artist has shown works recently at two spots in Midtown St. Petersburg. Behind her is a Caribbean-influenced take on Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.
Sharon Norwood is shown in her studio in Dunedin. The graphic artist turned fine artist has shown works recently at two spots in Midtown St. Petersburg. Behind her is a Caribbean-influenced take on Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.
Published Sep. 25, 2014

Like most little girls, Sharon Norwood played with dolls and placed them in imaginative, storybook settings.

Because she is black, however, it was hard to relate to her inanimate playmates.

"All of my dolls were white dolls; I didn't have any black dolls," she said. "Those dolls weren't really available.''

So the little girl created story lines that suited her. Rather than the typical tale of Cinderella, she imagined herself in the role of the golden-haired princess with the fabled foot.

Norwood, now an emerging, multidisciplinary artist, is still drawing on her imagination in her paintings and clay sculptures.

"My work is mostly about identity,'' she said. "I attempt to rewrite and give a different narrative to popular images of blackness. It is like reading a book and imagining yourself as one with the characters.''

That is what she did in her rendition of Johannes Vermeer's famous 17th century painting, Girl With a Pearl Earring. She asked herself, "What would I look like in that space?''

In both paintings, the girl gazes backward over her left shoulder. But the blue scarf and brown robe on Norwood's girl look tailored for a Caribbean woman like herself and the red hues are stronger.

Although she began painting and sculpting just a few years ago, Norwood and her work are gaining notice.

In recent months, her pieces have been featured at the Dunedin Fine Art Center and two galleries in southern St. Petersburg — the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum and Gallerie 909.

In 2012, Norwood volunteered at the Midtown gallery of renowned glass artist Duncan McClellan. She had a "dynamic personality,'' said McClellan. "She was a hardworking artist.''

"I love her spirit,'' said Wallace Wilson, a professor of studio art who helped direct Norwood's studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, where she earned a bachelor's in fine arts last year. "I think the best work she does embodies that spirit.''

Norwood, 47, was well into adulthood before she became an artist.

She was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and lived there with her father until, at 9, she moved to Toronto to join her mother. Aside from a little writing and a mild interest in an uncle's political poems, Norwood said, she had no artistic leanings.

Norwood got her first taste of art as a graphic designer in Canada. She enjoyed it and spent more than 10 years in the field, but she felt restricted.

"The best designers always had a formal arts background,'' Norwood said. "I wanted to get better at painting because I found myself limited.''

Whereas fine arts use a wide range of materials and concepts, graphic design deals with text, copy and page layout; it is commonly used in marketing.

As a graphic designer, Norwood created art for a business. Now, "with fine arts, it's like I'm telling a story,'' she said.

Romance brought Norwood to Florida. While vacationing here 14 years ago, she met her future husband, Charles Norwood, a financial counselor and certified motorcycle-riding instructor. She decided to move down and they were soon married.

The pair live in half of a Dunedin duplex. The other half serves as her studio.

Norwood used her graphic design experience to land a job with the Tampa Bay Business Journal, where she was part of a team that received a second-place award in 2006 for overall graphic design from the Florida Press Association.

Still feeling restrained, however, Norwood began painting and enrolled at USF. At the time, painting was the only medium on her palette.

"I wanted to be a better painter,'' Norwood said. "That's all I knew about art.''

After taking a ceramics class, her perspective began to change. She discovered a natural ability to manipulate the clay in her hands. People's positive reactions to her sculptures make her more comfortable as a sculptor than a painter, she said.

One of those people was Wilson, her professor at USF.

"People often have an innate ability to work with certain materials,'' he said. "I felt that the most compelling work that she had were the figurative sculptures and clay.''

As she grew as an artist, Norwood returned to her roots in Canada and Jamaica.

In Toronto in 2011, she participated in her first exhibit outside the United States. In 2012, she spent a seven-week residency in St. Ann, Jamaica, with well-known artist Laura Facey teaching students how to sculpt and paint.

During that trip, Norwood found inspiration on the streets.

Andy, a sculpture Norwood created using Jamaican clay, depicts a Jamaican man with sullen, downcast eyes. The oxidized, fired ceramic makes him appear weathered and aged. The piece received a merit award from the Dunedin Fine Art Center in March.

Emerging artists often struggle to make ends meet, but Norwood remains steadfast in her commitment.

Aside from constant practice of her craft, she sells her work through Gallerie 909, a new gallery at 909 22nd St. S that specializes in African and Caribbean art.

On occasion, she paints portraits for commission while maintaining a part-time job teaching a basic social painting class in Tampa. "It's almost like paint-by-numbers,'' she said.

In April, she had her first solo exhibit at the Woodson Museum. It featured a combination of paintings and clay sculptures — a total of about 25 pieces.

Since her graduation from USF in the spring of 2013, Norwood checks in with Wilson every few months.

The professor said he has seen notable progress in Norwood's work. "I think she understands herself better,'' he said. "She understands her voice.''

Mark Wolfenbarger is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. Contact him at (727) 488-4552.